LONDON — Where is the beating heart of any sculptor to be found? It can often seem so elusive. There has, for example, always been a strange measure of emotional restraint about the work of the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Throughout her almost four-decades-long career as a maker, she has explored, time and time again, something that has repeatedly been called negative space by critics of her work.
How to define that term? Think of the space beneath the seat of a chair, hemmed in by its four legs. That empty, legs-and-seat-bounded terrain, all that boxed in, empty air, can be spoken of as negative space. If you were to block it out in resin — as she has so often done — you would be sculpting negative space, realizing it in three dimensions, showing us something that is not, and can never be, quite palpable. She has materialized the negative spaces contained within so many different kinds of things, from doors and windows to torsos and hot water bottles.
Whiteread began her career as a maker by creating such a cast of a soon-to-be-demolished house in the East End of London. Later, she sat in her car and watched — with steely sangfroid? — as it was demolished. That was back in 1983.
All this work — dogged, repetitive, so slow and deliberative over the years — possesses a labor-intensive, technical quality, though you could also argue that to explore the idea of emptiness in this particular way, to grasp at something you can never touch or hold or feel, is also, in its strange ghostliness, moving and even mildly disturbing …
A lesser-known work, made between 2006 and 2008, hidden away in a corner of the mezzanine floor of London’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, feels like a stepping stone to the new works, now on display in Internal Objects at Gagosian, which could be called something of a departure, as well as an opening up for her practice.
That older work at the Museum of Childhood is called “Place (Village),” and it is a small sculptural environment composed of a rising hillside of doll houses. These doll houses are from Whiteread’s own collection. They are stacked like boxes. Doors are open, and the lights are on.
All the rooms are bare, and not a single house is inhabited. They amount, in the end, to an eerily lit stack of pretty boxes. Is it night or day in this miniaturized village? Miniaturized worlds, especially ambiguous ones, are always so enchanting.
The pair of three-dimensional works in Internal Objects can be thought of as a continuation of “Place,” although not on a miniature scale by any means. They are full-size structures standing foursquare in the center of their respective galleries, drawing the eye to them.
At first glance, they suggest a candid act of emotional unburdening. What we are staring at are two blighted wooden cabins, tumbled down, devastated by the elements, part made, part unmade, their wood-plank floors partly caved in, windows shattered, roofs of corrugated iron falling limply over the wasted frame of the house, like a dissolving Dali watch, as nature — in the form of tree limbs — thrusts forward through walls and windows, reclaiming the space occupied by the structures.
By contrast, the wall-hung works, two dimensional and slightly older, seem to hang back somewhat, doing obeisance. It is clear that they they belong to and follow from everything else she has made.
The two cabin sculptures, “Poltergeist” (2020) and “Doppelgänger” (2020-21), were made during the pandemic, and so we can legitimately call them lockdown endeavors. This time Whiteread is not casting from, but actually making and part-replicating familiar objects from our common world.
“Doppelgänger,” the larger and more dramatic of the two works, is frozen on the tilt, as if its collapse is mere seconds away. Feelings rush in, tunes, literary associations, without hesitation: we imagine we hear Woody Guthrie’s disappointingly light and reedy voice strike up with one of his Dust Bowl Ballads: “I’m a dust bowl refugee …,” above the aching sighs of a family piling into a rickety, overloaded jalopy on the wind-scorched earth of a soon-to-be-abandoned homestead. The scene melts away in a cloud of dust and hopelessness. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath falls open on our knees.
In short, Whiteread has made two structures that pack an immediate emotional punch. Both are painted white; this choice of color seems to lift them away airily from the floor, as if they might be inclined to float away.
Then we hit a snag. What exactly does white mean in this context? (The gallery’s walls are white, too.) A remembered snatch of a poem by Milton sets off a train of thought. In a heart-rending sonnet, he writes of Katherine, his deceased wife: “vested all in white, pure as her mind […].” So white, to Milton, is purity. White is also, by turns, the color often associated with sterility, virginity, neutrality, racial and nationalistic superiority. So what does it mean here? What do we feel it means?
I spoke of an act of emotional unburdening, but the choice of the color white causes a scrim of distancing to fall between ourselves and the object in question, gently putting the brakes on. White feels emblematic, as if the sculpture is not an object in itself, but something that stands in for everything, a species of symbol, a token or glimpse of some otherwhere, a wider and less personal message altogether. Even as Rachel Whiteread steps forward to greet us, she takes a small, deft step back, away from us.
Rachel Whiteread: Internal Objects continues at Gagosian (20 Grosvenor Hill, London, England) through June 6.
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